I recently traveled to Corpus Christi to pay my respects to the departed Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz, who was a friend and fellow foot soldier in the Raza Unida Party (RUP), a short-lived but profoundly influential political movement in Texas during the 1970s. His life and work should be taught and remembered throughout Texas.
Muñiz was an exemplary student in high school and a star athlete, playing halfback and corner linebacker on the Class 4A team from Roy Miller High School that won the state championship in 1960. He went on to excel at Baylor University as a student, football player and body builder, then earned a law degree from Baylor. After law school, he was drawn to the RUP, which emerged out of the Mexican American social movement in 1970.
Its leadership and rank and file expressed great frustration with the continued marginalization of large portions of the Mexican-origin population and took bold action that might advance change beyond what the more moderate Mexican American groups had been able to achieve during the 1950s and 1960s.
The RUP’s mostly young activists secured the necessary signatures to place the party on the ballot and fielded candidates for state and local offices. More importantly, they energized an expanding social movement. Muñiz stood out in this history. He was the party’s candidate for governor in 1972 and 1974, garnering over 120,000 votes in 1972 and about 100,000 in 1974, giving notice to the Democratic Party that it could no longer take the Mexican American and progressive vote for granted.
Muñiz electrified the party with his enthusiasm and untiring campaign work, fueling its success both in garnering national visibility and in democratizing the electoral system in Texas. In a context where Texas politics had been in the hands of the mostly segregationist Democratic Party for over 100 years since Reconstruction, the progressive RUP was instrumental in forcing a conservative flight out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party.
The result was the start of a two-party system in Texas, both in name and deed, beginning in 1978. The Republican Party has since become so prominent in Texas politics that it has, in effect, returned us once again to a one-party system. However, thanks to the RUP, the possibility of a fully functioning democratic process is still within reach.
The party and Muñiz did much more than reform the political system in Texas. They encouraged the greater participation of Texans, including Mexican Americans, in the political process as voters, candidates, elected officials and members of the Democratic Party. Mexican American representation in the Texas Legislature — as well as on school boards, city councils and county commissioners courts throughout the state — increased significantly beginning in the 1970s. History rarely gives such clear evidence of a unique ensemble of interrelated events.
The establishment of the RUP, and the fielding of candidates and the soliciting of votes, also gave a significant number of young activists the necessary training and confidence to participate in the momentous changes that the 1970s introduced. The party and its candidates advocated for some of the most progressive ideas of the time, including opposition to the war in Vietnam and to racial and gender discrimination; and support for women’s and workers’ rights, comprehensive immigration reform, Mexican American studies and bilingual education.
Political repression, internal divisions and the establishment leadership’s distaste for a progressive party led by Mexican Americans contributed to the demise of the RUP. Muñiz’s brilliant career was cut short by drug convictions, which resulted in his incarceration for over 30 years. Explaining the party’s demise and Muñiz’s convictions requires a fuller conversation. Muñiz and other former RUP members have always claimed that he was a political prisoner, framed for his leadership in the party. His passing is an opportunity, however, to celebrate his central role as a Mexican American leader in the expansion of democracy and democratic possibility in Texas.
Emilio Zamora is a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed in MSN, Yahoo! News, Austin American Statesman, Abilene Reporter News, and the San Antonio Express News.